Inclusive Strategies for the Future of Work
The future of work remains in the zeitgeist for a simple reason. We may be less certain about our work-related future than at any time since the middle of the last century, when the U.S. essentially built a consumer economy from scratch. Today, fueled by the twin market disruptors of automation and globalization, and accelerated by exponential technologies like machine learning and robotics, those old rules of work are rapidly eroding, and a new set of work market dynamics are developing that are already having dramatic impact on local and regional economies.
Unfortunately, all the current confusion isn’t often helped by the experts. The continual stream of “future of work” studies seems to have an almost daily seesaw effect. Either there will be a massive loss of jobs to robots and artificial intelligence (with the apparent message to young people: ‘give up’), or there will be a software-fueled renaissance and abundance for all. Dismal scientists can’t seem to agree even what’s happening with non-traditional employment today, much less build consensus over tomorrow.
The arena has spawned a virtually unlimited number of concerns that surface from cocktail parties to corporate board rooms, including two-sided work markets, the workplace of the future, hiring automation, job clouds, the future of education, lifelong learning, augmented reality training, augmented humans, the future of the organization, the gig economy, and – a perpetual favorite in Silicon Valley – universal basic income. One undeniable result of all this confusion seems to be full employment on the lecture circuit for those of us with “future of work” in our job titles.
Let’s end the confusion. We can distill down the issues related to the future of work to four key domains:Individuals, Organizations, Communities, and Countries. And each of these has a crystal-clear problem statement.
- For every individual, the common question: How can I find or create meaningful, paid work, today and tomorrow?
- For organizations: How can we have the talented workers we need today and tomorrow?
- For communities: How can we be ecosystems in which all of our constituents can thrive?
- For countries and regions: What are the policies and strategies that ensure we can have an inclusive economy?
The challenge, of course, isn’t really about the future of work. We need to understand the fundamental dynamics of what is changing in our work ecosystems now, and if we develop inclusive strategies that address our greatest challenges today, we can create the kind of collaborative approaches that will allow us to continually adapt tomorrow. As I say to everyone from mayors to the CEOs of major companies: your key deliverable isn’t an answer, it’s an inclusive decision-making process that will survive your tenure.
Here’s an example of an inclusive strategy, which we call Connected Work Economies. If the venture capitalist Tim Draper’s original attempt to segment California had been successful, the Golden State would have been divided into six smaller states. The Bay Area (an economy already larger than Switzerland’s) would have had the highest per-capita income in the entire U.S. The Central Valley, a three-hour drive away, would have had the lowest.
But suppose that California (a country-sized economy already larger than India’s) gave tax incentives to Bay Area organizations to train and hire individuals in Central Valley communities – and leave them in place, operating from co-working facilities in places like Stockton and Bakersfield.(And ultimately, high-speed rail or hyperloop will make it even easier for those remote workers to stay in touch with their compatriots. Everybody wins. In fact, employee-starved corporations don’t even have to wait for the tax incentives.
To be adaptive, these kinds of policies would need to be constructed with agreements about what the goals are, with metrics tied to knowable numbers anchored in what kind of economic and social benefits we’d like to see. Across the board, whether you’re focused on strategies for individuals, organizations, communities or country-sized regions, we’ve found there are two critical questions to ask yourself. In 10 years (or five, or two), what will we wish we had done today? And if we’re successful, how will we know?
These questions are critical, because we tend to misunderstand the way that work markets operate. Think of policy as generally having one of two functions: Lubricant or Friction. Either an activity is to be encouraged or discouraged. Legacy policies related to work, and the data we use to guide those decisions, often don’t reflect the changing nature of work.
Take licensing and certification. You can argue that government makes sure people are well-trained (lubricant), or that it’s trying to protect existing markets (friction). Look at taxi medallions: In 2013 they were worth up to $1.3 million in New York City. Today, a Lyft driver simply downloads an app and undergoes a brief background check, and the value of medallions have dropped by up to ninety percent.
This isn’t an isolated case. The former implied contract of trust between employers and employees continues to erode. Benefits remain largely tied to that diminishing work context, and as a result hirers contort themselves attempting to avoid traditional employee classifications for their non-traditional workers. The majority of U.S. states still recognize non-compete clauses. And licensing is often byzantine. For example, every state in the U.S. certifies barbers. It’s been a long time since I needed the services of one, but my memory is that it’s a profession with rather low long-term risk to customers.
Think for the Future, But Fix It Today
The future of work may indeed turn out to be the province of robots and artificial intelligence. (To me, that’s simply hi-tech dancing in the end zone – “Andreessen was right! Software ate the world!”) Or it may be a future of abundance for all.
But we don’t actually need to know. Instead, we need a dramatically new mindset for the strategies we employ to change the dynamics of our work markets. If we can leverage ecosystem thinking, build approaches that are inclusive – involving individuals, organizations, communities, and countries – and adaptive, we can lay the groundwork today for a far more positive future of work tomorrow.
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